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Savran: Blame the NBA for U.S. downfall

Saturday, September 07, 2002

Idle thoughts from an often-idle mind:

That Argentina and Yugoslavia defeated the United States at its own game,literally, might have startled you, but it shouldn't have shocked you -- or even surprised you.

The rest of the world has gotten significantly better, to the point where those teams are more than just competitive.

All you need do is look at the NBA draft the past few years and note the abundance of foreign players selected.

The second, and I believe the most important reason for the impending end to U.S. dominance in a sport invented on our shores, is the abandonment of the way the game was intended to be played. Basketball, when played properly, is the ultimate team sport.

Even if a player goes one-on-one against an opponent, he anticipates a screen from a teammate to enable him to get free. At the very least, he relies on his four teammates to grab a rebound should he miss.

You win or lose based on how many your team scores, not on how many the individual scores.

But who do we send to represent us in international competition?

NBA players schooled to believe there is an "I" in team. NBA play is strictly a one-on-one affair. Maybe, if you're lucky, you can beat a team playing two-on-two. You got Shaq and Kobe, you win the title.

So these NBA stars play the only way they know how. Clear out and let someone go one on one, or have the big man stand on the blocks and back his ample posterior into a defender's chest, hoping for a short hook or turnaround. All this while the other eight stand around and watch, or race for the other end hoping for a fastbreak basket.

Might as well decide games by playing HORSE.

You watch the foreign competition, and those players actually pass the ball around a few times.

My goodness, I believe I saw a bounce pass! Imagine that!

George Karl or Pat Riley or Phil Jackson or James Naismith cannot take 10 guys who play a one-on-one style and get them to play team basketball in the span of two weeks when they've been corrupted by the NBA.

They are what they know.

It used to be the American teams could overwhelm international opponents with its talent. But the other guys are getting closer in talent. And when they play the game as intended, you get upsets. And you're going to see more now. And at some point, they'll no longer be considered upsets.

Foreign countries enter games against the United States believing they can win. Argentina's and Yugoslavia's victories will embolden them further.

But it extends beyond a mind-set.

It has more to do with the way U.S. teams play ... insisting on playing the selfish game that is the NBA -- under international rules, no less -- against teams that play five on five. If I've got a choice, give me five individuals playing as a team over five individuals playing on a team.

Given their voluminous set of circumstances, the Penguins are trying to catch some lightning -- or at least a dark storm cloud -- in a bottle by signing the likes of Alexander Daigle, Alexander Selivanov or any of the other elderly gentlemen rounded up in the off-season.

This has caused fans to raise an eyebrow and, in some cases, created outright despair over what is to come this winter. Actually, there's very little downside risk to these signings. Fans should remember that Martin Straka and Robert Lang were culled from the NHL's scrap heap by Craig Patrick and went on to pay huge dividends.

But it should also be mentioned that these cross-your-fingers signings wouldn't be necessary had the drafts of the past few years not been so barren.

Had Penguins' drafts and the minor-league system been even marginally productive, rolling the dice on reclamation projects that have been out of the country or out of the game completely might not be a course they would need to take.

Perhaps a replica of the Statue of Liberty should be placed outside Southpointe for training camp: "Give me your tired, your poor ... "

Dave Littlefield has plenty to keep him busy this off-season. He knows, and has stated publicly, that there's not nearly enough talent in his clubhouse.

But I wonder if he's also thinking that perhaps the talent he does have isn't a mix particularly conducive to winning. And that his biggest problem might not be the manager, but rather with those who seem not only willing, but anxious to criticize the manager, ownership and Littlefield.

All this as they slog through yet another 90-loss season. Not all that's wrong with the Pirates is attributable to lack of talent.

Lack of veteran leadership ranks right up there.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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